Religion at the British Museum

By Graham Harvey

Religious objects almost fill the British Museum. In galleries dedicated to Islamic and Asian cultures as well as those related to health and healing there are many artefacts made for religious use. There are large portions of temples from ancient Sumeria, Egypt and Greece. There are deity statues from the Pacific, ancestor masks from Africa and icons from Greece and Russia. A full list would be a long one! And if you search for religious terms in the museum’s website — or in the Google Arts and Culture site related to the BM — the objects displayed are abundant. “Faith”, for instance, appears to be a popular theme for curators and website organisers. This fact indicates more than the presence of objects that originated in religious contexts. It points to the employment of religion as interpretative lens in this putatively secular institution. Two recent additions to the British Museum increase not only the presence of religious objects but also of religious interpretations.

The “Lion Man” Sculpture

In collaboration with BBC Radio 4 and with a book publisher, the British Museum currently has a temporary exhibition “Living with gods” in its premier gallery, Room 35 beneath the imposing central rotunda. This brings together the 40,000 year old “Lion Man” sculpture from the Stadel Cave, Germany, with recently collected objects such as Jewish kippot (skull caps — one displaying affiliation with a football club), and examples of souvenirs brought home by pilgrims. In between the ancient figure and the contemporary souvenirs are items drawn from across the museum’s collections: e.g. Coptic processional crosses, Hopi kachinas, Islamic prayer rugs, Buddhist icons, a Hindu juggernaut, Zoroastrian and Protestant prayer costumes. Any one of these could generate lengthy discussion — just as they have generated considerable devotion.

For those of us interested in religion as a bodily and material practice, there is something odd about the exhibition. Despite the prevalence of materiality that make ritual acts central to religion, the exhibition is framed and structured by words which insist that religion is defined by believing. Most curiously, the final display board before the exit from Room 35 uses words like “indeterminate”, “ineffable”, “never seen” and “not accessible”. Admittedly, these are said of an (indeterminate) “it” but the presumption must be that they refer to religion, faith, gods and other putatively transcendent realities. Conversations with other visitors to the gallery suggested that I was not alone in finding this an odd conclusion to draw about rich material cultures. Indeed, overheard comments on particular items in the exhibition strongly suggest that at least some objects continue to engage people quite viscerally and directly. Thus, the “Living with gods” exhibition deserves wider attention.

Commemoration of the bicentennial of the birth of Baha’u’llah

The second addition to the British Museum’s displays is a case commemorating  the bicentennial of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. Along with information about Baha’u’llah, the case contains objects owned by him, such as his glasses and pens, as well as examples of writings considered revelatory by Baha’is. It is placed at the rear of the museum’s Gallery of the Islamic World, devoted to “the cultures of peoples living in lands where the dominant religion is Islam”. The Baha’i Faith has spread worldwide and promotes a vision of global unity. The display case was the focus of considerable attention at a reception hosted in the gallery by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom. A series of speeches emphasised key themes in Baha’i teachings and celebrated the perception that being able to handle the founder’s pens and correspondence provides an authenticity greater than that of other religions.  The positioning, contents and response to this new display provide further encouragements to those of us interested in understanding the presence, practice and politics of religion in the contemporary world.

Identity, Orthodoxy and Ambiguity in Extreme Metal Engagements with Religion

By Owen Coggins

In 2015, an extreme metal band named Batushka appeared, with details about band-members scarce. A deliberately cultivated sense of mystery surrounded their album entitled Litourgiya, featuring a cover which reproduced an orthodox-style icon, heavy on the gold paint (it actually closely resembled another unusual metal album cover, from Advaitic Songs by the band Om, but that’s another story). The music was a gripping combination of pummeling riffs, thunderous percussion and hoarse screeching, but all this guitar distortion and screaming was centred around a chanting of the Russian Orthodox liturgy.

This absorbing combination quickly gathered attention online, and soon enough word had spread to the point that the album has been released in at least twenty different editions on a variety of formats. Soon enough there was an intensive tour schedule, with the stage show including copious amounts of candles, incense in swinging censers, musicians masked and clothed in lavish robes, and an ornately framed painted icon held up at the beginning of the set and then placed reverentially on a lectern. The band’s luminously beautiful website is so rich in religious symbolism you can practically smell it. Of course, the one thing that sells better in the metal underground than great music, is great music shrouded in intrigue and opaque ritual. Two questions continue to be asked about Batushka: what is the identity of the musicians? And what is their religious status?

Batushka Throne Fest Kuurne 15 05 2016 02

Metal bands have always, from the earliest origins of the genre in the early 1970s, played ambivalently with the symbols of ritual and religion. Black Sabbath wore large crucifixes on stage and addressed the devil in their eponymous track, while their first album famously featured an inverted cross in the inner gatefold (placed there by designers, as legend has it, unbeknownst to the band). Since then, various bands have combined or contrasted pagan and Christian symbols, played with various versions of Satanism, and expressed all imaginable kinds of religious and anti-religious positions. Participants in metal cultures, as well as external onlookers, have often sought to ask similar kinds of questions: is this music, this band, or this track, anti-Christian? Is it Christian? Is it Satanic? Is it religious?

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Understanding Unbelief – understanding what?

By Richard Irvine and Theodoros Kyriakides

[fig. 1: A place beyond belief by Nathan Coley. Photo Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney.]

In 2013, Nathan Coley’s art installation “A place beyond belief” was brought to Orkney’s shore. The words provoke: what does it mean to be a place beyond belief? One interpretation, enhanced by the juxtaposition of the sign with spire of the redundant church behind it (now Stromness’ Town Hall), is that here is place where church membership, and apparently the relevance of religious belief itself, has declined dramatically. As Steve Bruce has outlined in his book Scottish Gods, the story of the Scottish islands, in keeping with the rest of the UK, has been one of increasing disengagement from organised religion; non-belief emerging as the norm. In this sense, it is becoming a place beyond belief. Yet for those who described the sculpture in its Orkney setting, another interpretation presented itself: here was a place of wonder, a place beyond our limited capacity for belief. A magical place, even.

Crucially, the two readings don’t rule one another out. Even as religious belief declines, wonder does not disappear.

This question of what it means to be ‘beyond belief’ is at the heart of the new project we’re starting in OU Religious Studies entitled “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief”. Our research is part of a bigger, inter-disciplinary project hosted by the University of Kent entitled Understanding Unbelief, and will draw on experiences from our fieldwork in Nicosia, Cyprus (Theodoros Kyriakides) and Orkney (Richard Irvine).

So, what do we mean by unbelief? Our colleagues at Kent have put together a neat glossary of the core concepts for the project of “Understanding Unbelief”, which also provides a definition of the given word. Our objective as anthropologists and ethnographers is, of course, to go beyond definitions. One would be right to exclaim that “unbelief” is a quite vague term and, in such sense, our research does not seek to pinpoint or validate what unbelief is, or where it takes place. Rather, our aim is to use the given term as a springboard, in order to reach a more ethnographically grounded, nuanced understanding of the spectrum of social phenomena which take place in the in-between of large, yet analytically rudimentary, terms such as “unbelief”, “religion”, “belief”, “atheism”, and so on. To try and glimpse what unbelief actually looks like in the messiness of everyday life.

More specifically, our research – *plugplug* – seeks to combine ethnographic literature on magic with emerging studies of atheism and non-religion to explore in what ways magical thinking emerges in the everyday lives of people who, in one way or another, are considered to be unbelievers. Magic is of course a foundational anthropological topic, and the relationship between humanity and magic as whole cannot be understated. For example, anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl used the (problematic) term “primitive mentality” to denote modes of reasoning of ‘tribal’ societies which do not make the distinction between natural and supernatural causality.

[fig. 2: Collection of evil eyes and lucky charms on coffee shop wall in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Photo taken by Allyson McAbee.]

Later commentators – such as Stanley Tambiah – point out that the term “primitive mentality” was not intended to describe aspects of thinking specific to non-Western societies but rather a mode of thinking which, under the right social circumstances, can manifest in human consciousness and human action irrespectively of spatiotemporal and historical parameters. Similarly, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre used the term “magicality” to denote the ability of the human mind to adopt modes of thinking and reasoning which evade the normative social order.

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3 Minute Theory | Actor-Network Theory, with Graham Harvey

In three minutes, our very own Graham Harvey tells us about Actor-Network Theory, an approach that suggests that everything exists in networks of relationships, including not only humans, but objects and ideas too.

What inanimate object are you in a relationship with? Let us know in the comments!

Durkheim, Energy and Contagion

Just published on the blog of Oxford University Press is a piece by Paul-Francois Tremlett taking a fresh look at the work of foundational sociologist, Emilé Durkheim. He argues that we have tended to overlook some of his ideas, and looks at two examples – energy and contagion – from 1912’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life:

According to Durkheim, the performance of ritual supplied so-called aboriginal society with the resources it needed to ensure the right balance between the generation of energy on the one hand, and the consumption of energy on the other. Durkheim, of course, could not have known how apposite this line of thought would be to we humans of the Anthropocene, a term coined to mark that moment in Earth’s history when human impact on eco-systems (notably the extraction of resources for generating energy) now threatens the sustainability of all human societies.

You can read the full article here.

Don’t forget that Paul-Francois was also one of the editors (along with our own Graham Harvey and Liam T. Sutherland of the University of Edinburgh) of a recent book which also re-assesses the work of a seminal early figure in the study of religion, Edward Burnett Tylor. Watch out for a video discussion on Tylor in the New Year, recorded at the BASR conference in Chester this September.

Modern Religious History seminars, Autumn 2017

John Maiden and John Wolffe are co-conveners of the Institute of Historical Research‘s Modern Religious History seminar, and they have just published the schedule for the Autumn seminar series.

All talks take place on Wednesday at 17:15 PM, in the Professor Olga Crisp Room N102, 1st floor, IHR, North block, Senate House, School of Advanced Study at the University of London (map at this link – it’s No. 3).

Details are below, and you can download the pdf here.

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Dangerous Hegemonies: A Comment on the “Christian Child in Muslim Foster Care” Reports

By David G. Robertson

If you are in the UK, you almost certainly saw the fuss around a story carried by The Times on Aug 28th under the banner “Christian Child forced into Muslim foster care”. The scandal ostensibly revolved around the fact that the foster mother wears a burka, which the Times suggests “generally indicates adherence to a conservative, Salafi-influenced interpretation of Islam that is often contemptuous of liberal Western values”. The use of the term “contemptuous” is clearly loaded, implying an irrational hatred of Western morality rather than simply a disagreement, and there is nothing in that that will be surprising or less than obvious to anyone following the discourse on religion in the popular media.

There are a few interesting points when we dig into the story, however, which I think are illuminating in how such hysterical stories come to appear in the press (and I am drawing here from Richard Bartholomew’s excellent blog post on the stories). Firstly, the Times report seems to have been intended primarily as a follow-up to the recent Tower Hamlets fire and the ongoing concern over the callous treatment of the residents by the local council both before and after. It mentions “the scandal-ridden borough of Tower Hamlets” several times, but had no concern about the girl’s previous Muslim foster parents prior to the fire. The article was also written by the journalist who broke the story of “grooming gangs” in Rotherham, so perhaps that further encouraged the sensationalistic tone.

However, the story began to receive wider attention when the Mail Online picked it up and added a stock photograph of a child not in obviously “Muslim” dress holding hands with a Muslim woman in a headdress onto which they had clumsily photoshopped a veil, as reported by the Guardian. It further emerged that the appointment of the foster carers had nothing to do with Tower Hamlets council, that the court-appointed guardian had absolutely no concerns about the child’s welfare, and that the child had always been intended to eventually reside with their grandmother once a risk assessment had been carried out. Things then took a bizarre twist when it emerged that the grandmother in question was, in fact… Muslim.

So we have a perfect storm of more-or-less explicit xenophobia, editorial ineptitude and conspiratorial implications about both corrupt local politicians and organised anti-liberal Islamic invaders. This guaranteed click-bait then gets further traction when the left-wing press picks it up in order to criticise the right-wing press, not without justification in this instance. Thus a viral story is born.

But I think this story also reveals a couple of interesting implications about how religion is dealt with in the media, beyond the obvious Islamophobia. First, notice that the child’s Christian status is uncontested and unproblematic. It is as though the child’s Christianity is an essential and permanent essence, whereas Islam is being imposed (“forced”, even) from without. While the implication is that the child is vulnerable and therefore should be protected from having ideologies forced upon them, this doesn’t seem to be a concern with Christianity. Can one be brainwashed into Christianity?  If the child is too young to choose to become a Muslim or not, does that not suggest that it is also too young to choose to become a Christian or not?

No; and the reason why is a good example, I suggest, of the difference between ideology and hegemony: when an ideology is invisible, it is a hegemony. We are happy to describe Muslim dress codes as being for cultural or religious reasons, but we do not often describe our own dress codes in the same way – including many codes determined by gender and status like skirt-wearing, cosmetics, business attire, and so on. These are just what people do. Like fish, we do not see the water in which we are swimming.

For scholars of New Religions, the language used in these reports will be strikingly similar to the way that “cults” were talked about from the end of World War 2 until the 1990s. As I wrote about in a previous blog, children were often at the centre of the Cult Wars, and the rhetoric (often from the very same individuals) of the anti-cult movement continues straight into the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the 1990s and into the present with Pizzagate. The desire to protect children from harm is laudable, and indeed seems to have been the aim of all the officials involved here, but these reports seem more concerned with protecting children from difference. If we wish a more progressive society, it is as important to protect from dangerous hegemonies as from dangerous ideologies. So long as they remain invisible, however, the former is far harder to do.

3 Minute Theory | The Individual with Stephen Quilley

In three minutes, Stephen Quilley tells us about the idea of the individual. Are we really free autonomous agents? Where does the idea of the individual come from, and how does it relate to modern systems of government?


3 Minute Theory | The Individual with Stephen… by religiousstudies

Are YOU an individual? What theories or theorists should we cover in future videos? Let us know in the comments!